28th January 2004 .
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Even in speech, Bryn Terfel's words have the blend of lyricism and rhetoric that is at the heart of Eistedfodd culture. Recently, Falstaff excepted, he has been exploring his demonic side with roles such as Don Giovanni and Sweeney Todd, and in July, Mephistopheles in the new Covent Garden Faust but, in conversation, he is affability itself.

He is most keen to talk about his two non-musical loves, wine and golf. With wine there are musical connections, as when he made a visit to Martinborough's Te Kairanga Estate four years ago. "When I walked in they were playing the Treorchy Male Voice Choir to their wines."

On the golf course he is often alongside fellow singers, such as Thomas Hampson and Barbara Bonney. "So many colleagues have taken up golf because for five hours you forget about everything. There are no tunes in your head and you're not thinking about the next plane you're catching."

The Welsh-speaking boy who learned English from watching television and music from performing at local Eistedfodds has come a long way. His Welshness is a personal signature - "the fact I'm a Welshman comes first" - and he speaks up for the value of his early musical training.

"I had rules about performance, the conveying of poetry and good diction drummed into me from the age of 4."

It was 15 years ago that he was runner-up to Dimitri Hvorostovsky in the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, although his prize for Best Lieder singer was "scant consolation, something to show they felt sorry for Bryn coming from Wales".

"But you are a wonderful Lieder singer," I break in.

"I wasn't then. I cringe when I look at the tapes. Actually I cringe about all my singing in 1989."

The biggest break came soon after, working with Sir George Solti in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. "I did the smallest role, the gardener Antonio, and from 12 pages of music I received so many offers of work."

Despite his operatic successes, the concert platform is also important to Terfel, who won over his Auckland audience in 2000 when he walked on stage sporting an All Black supporters' scarf.

"Concerts give me a chance to talk to an audience, which will be especially nice with my opening number next week, Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel. What a wonderful set of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, and they're set fantastically. I may ask the audience at the end what they thought about them; I might even get my new accompanist, Anders Kilstrom, to say something about the Tosti songs."

The programme will be "90 per cent English - Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Warlock, Quilter, Britten - it's me wanting to sing the pearls of the English repertoire along with some very traditional songs".

Although he admits a Lieder concert should be in a small theatre for 500 people, Terfel is not precious about his art. "I've never considered myself as a recitalist. I'm more of a guy who loves to sing songs."

It is this populist spirit that led him to set up the award-winning Faenol Festival in Wales, which draws artists ranging from Jose Carreras and Denyce Graves to our own Hayley Westenra.

"An audience of 12,000 were bowled over by Hayley. She won't be a soprano who will sing Tosca, but she is a beautiful, feather-like creature with a petite, beautiful voice. When she thanked them in Welsh, the audience was in the palm of her hand."

At present, Terfel has "a big ball and chain around my feet learning two Wagner roles by the end of December" - although working from scores that used to belong to the legendary George London is a bonus.

"I see all his markings and sympathise with everything, mostly breathing marks and how Wotan feels at different moments. London wrote in his score, something which our generation don't do that much."

Terfel defends the singers of today. "We're a new generation and in some ways a lot more flexible, travelling a lot more and playing in different cities."

He flew to Vienna to do a Figaro with only one rehearsal. "It created an amazingly exciting performance. You were on the balls of the feet all the time reacting immediately to the colleagues around you; it was a real team effort."

In truth, Terfel can't afford the weeks of rehearsal that companies like Covent Garden demand: seven weeks for a new production, three for a revival. He tackles only two new productions a year. "I have to be home for my children, which for the opera houses is shocking.

"But most of these people who run opera houses don't have families. Last year I quarrelled with Covent Garden to have at least five days home at Christmas and it was if I had wanted 10 boxes in the Royal Opera House for myself for each performance. They just wouldn't budge."

There are happier stories, such as that of Stephen Sondheim visiting his dressing room after Chicago's Sweeney Todd and telling him to "sing the wonderful top-F at the end of the song Epiphany for ever".

The English press were generally less sympathetic to Neil Armfield's production of Sweeney when it opened in London, with Thomas Allen taking over from Terfel in the title role. Terfel was shocked. "There's one critic who didn't have one positive thing to say. There are not many evenings that you can come out of saying there's nothing you enjoyed."

His solution is curious. "I wish someone would write a review, keep it, then go and see the opera at the end, write another review and mix them all together and say that's the one."

Sweeney Todd was a huge commercial success for the Royal Opera, helped by more affordable ticket pricing. "You could have a top-class seat for £75 ($203)," Terfel says. I make a quick currency conversion and gasp, but the singer assures me that a Manchester United Game would have cost him £60 ($162) and top tickets at the Salzburg Festival run to £300 ($815).

Money aside, Terfel adores the buzz of musical theatre, something that comes out in his various CDs. "These songs weren't written for people with microphones. They were written for people with training and vocal resources - just think of Ezio Pinza.

"Perhaps people think I'm pulling down my art form, but I've done my homework and been to specialists. What it boils down to is giving it a performance. It doesn't matter how you sing them, if you sing them to a certain standard and bring them alive."

After a diversion discussing "every singer's worst nightmare" - Simon Keenlyside still getting faxes of material for Thomas Ade's new opera two months before opening; Richard Burton and Julie Andrews having to learn a Camelot that was the size of Parsifal for a Toronto tryout and then reduce its five hours to three for the Broadway run - Terfel concludes his would be "singing Don Giovanni and Leporello in the same week, because you couldn't stop yourself from singing the best lines of the role you weren't playing".

The present challenge is a rock opera written by another golf buddy, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. "It's wonderful to see things from The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon coming through in the music."

The singer was surprised when I brought up his recent BBC radio appearance on Desert Island Discs, where Frank Sinatra's One for My Baby was on the bill. "Sinatra was a master of being so flexible and so cool and, in those old black-and-white television programmes, there was just him in a suit with a microphone."

Next Thursday Bryn Terfel may well show the same mastery, without the microphone.


* Who: Bryn Terfel

* Where and when: Aotea Centre, February 5, 8pm

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Updated : August 6, 2004 0:52

Article link thanks to Steve MacDonald. Not for reproduction


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